CHICAGO -- It would have been understandable if Akiem Hicks had preferred to stay in the moment Sunday night. He had just dominated an overmatched Vikings offensive line, tallying five tackles for loss and generally having his way in the Bears' 25-20 statement win at Soldier Field. By his recollection, he had not had that type of individual success since high school.
But rather than soak in the moment, Hicks, a 6-foot-5, 332-pound game-wrecker, reflected on how the spotlight might not have found him and his teammates were it not for a decision the organization made in the offseason. Coming off a fourth straight last-place finish in the NFC North, the Bears hired offensive-minded Matt Nagy as head coach. That left everyone wondering what would happen to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who was passed over for the head job. Would the Bears seek to bring him back? Would he want to come back? And what of cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara, who were set to become free agents?
The organization chose continuity, and the merits of that decision have Bears fans thinking playoffs in November for the first time in five years.
"When we didn't know if Vic was going to be back or not, and then we found out that he was going to be here, there was so much enthusiasm with all the guys," Hicks said. "We were texting each other and we were excited about having that opportunity to have that same defense again, because it makes it easier on you as a player. So it was big, huge, monumental. We would not be here without that. Not even possible."
Where the Bears are: leading the division by 1.5 games with six to play. And while it's fashionable to focus on the continued maturation of second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, whose escapability and seventh straight game with at least one touchdown pass were offset by two interceptions, the reality is that the foundation of Chicago's success is a stingy, turnover-inducing defense that has gone from being really good last season to potentially something special this year.
Last year, the unit ranked 10th in total defense, ninth in scoring and tied for seventh in sacks. This year, the Bears are third in total defense (314.4 yards per game) fourth in scoring (19.5 points a game) and tied for fourth in sacks (32). They are tied for first in forced fumbles (15), to boot.
The names on the back of the jerseys have a lot to do with it; Chicago has a dominant interior player in Hicks, a premier edge rusher in Khalil Mack (who was acquired in a blockbuster trade with the Raiders just before the regular season began), a versatile and talented group of linebackers in Danny Trevathan, Leonard Floyd and Roquan Smith, and a secondary that is capitalizing on the pressure being generated by the front seven. Safeties Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos each had a pick on Sunday night, with Jackson returning his for a momentous touchdown.
But continuity is equally important. It allows defenders to play with speed and aggression, which comes from guys knowing what to do and where to be based on their familiarity with each other and the system. The carryover from a year ago has made it dramatically easier on newcomers like the rookie Smith and the veteran Mack to flourish.
"It's been amazing," said Mack, who had another sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery. "The situation has been tremendous for me, having guys that understand the defense and me coming in and having an understanding, as well. You've seen the results, game in and game out."
Fangio is arguably Nagy's most important hire. His presence meant one less thing for a first-year head coach to concern himself with. Fangio is widely respected for fielding units that are smart and disciplined.
Said Mack: "He's an evil genius. The guy knows the game in and out and he knows his players, and ultimately, he wants the best for us out there on the field, so he puts us in positions to make plays."
If the Bears are to complete their run to the postseason, something they failed to do in 2013, when they lost their final two games to finish 8-8, they will have to rely on their defense, because there are too many question marks in other areas. Trubisky is beginning to flourish, but Sunday night showed that growing pains are never far away with a young quarterback. And while kicker Cody Parkey was perfect against the Vikings, with three field goals, he missed two PATs and two field goals the week before.
The Bears were so dominant defensively through three-plus quarters that, with five minutes to play, they actually had tied the Vikings' offense, 6-6, thanks to Jackson's interception return. They let up down the stretch, something they know they cannot do going forward. But overall, it was another strong showing with three takeaways. This pushed their season total to 27, the top mark in the NFL.
"The fact that there's continuity, that you have the same faces and the same guys, Vic doesn't have to reinstall or reteach new stuff," Amukamara said. "He has the same guys, so he can add more stuff and make it more complex. Being a coordinator, you're playing chess and trying to make an educated guess on what the other guy is going to do. Vic is very, very detailed in his preparation. He makes the right calls for the right situation."
Just as the organization made the right call to keep the defense together, top to bottom. And if it's true that the unit is just scratching the surface, as Mack said, the franchise could be headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2010.